Be sure to pick up a free walking tour brochure at the visitor center. It explains Lexington's historic buildings and contains one of the best maps of downtown.
For a good overview, take a ride with Lexington Carriage Company (tel. 540/463-5647), whose horse-drawn carriages depart from the visitor center for 45-minute narrated tours daily from 10am to 6pm during the summer, from 11am to 5pm during April, May, September, and October. Fares are $16 for adults, $14 for seniors, $7 for children ages 7 to 13, free for kids 6 and under.
Haunting Tales of Historic Lexington (tel. 540/464-2250) conducts 1 1/2-hour nighttime walks through the streets, back alleys, and Stonewall Jackson Cemetery from Memorial Day weekend to Halloween. The cost is $12 for adults, $6 for children 4 to 12, and free for children 3 and younger. Reservations are strongly recommended, so call ahead.
During the school year, VMI cadets lead walking tours of their campus, departing the Virginia Military Institute Museum lobby daily at noon.
The Natural Bridge
Thomas Jefferson called this hugely impressive limestone formation "the most sublime of nature's works . . . so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light and springing, as it were, up to heaven." The bridge was part of a 157-acre estate Jefferson acquired in 1774 from King George III. In the early 1750s it was included in the survey of western Virginia carried out by George Washington, who carved his initials into the face of the sheer stone wall and beside Cedar Creek at the base of the gorge. This geological oddity dramatically rises 215 feet above the creek; its span is 90 feet long and spreads at its widest to 150 feet. The Monacan Indian tribes worshiped it as "the bridge of God." Today, it is also the bridge of man, as U.S. 11 passes over it.
The bridge itself and its Monacan Indian Living History Village definitely are worth seeing, but to my mind they are surrounded by a borderline tourist trap. That's not to say you and the children can't eat up a day here, or that the youngsters won't thoroughly enjoy themselves in the deepest caverns on the East Coast (45-min. tours depart every 30 min.), at the toy, wax, and monster museums, as well as exploring Dinosaur Kingdom. There's also a small, independently operated zoo up the road, but you, the kids, and especially the animals will have more fun at the nearby Virginia Safari Park. Also here: a department store-size souvenir shop, a restaurant, and a hotel.
There are no guided tours, but there are interpreters under the bridge and in the Monacan village. The bridge is a steep 1/4-mile downhill walk from the visitor center (passing the remains of a 1,500-year-old arbor vitae tree), but shuttle buses will take you down and back up. From there, the 1-mile-long Cedar Creek Trail descends past a cave and a waterfall. During summer, a 45-minute sound-and-light show begins at dusk beneath the bridge.
Admission to the bridge, Monacan village, the show, and the wax and toy museums is $26 for adults, $14 for children 5 to 12. Tickets without the museums cost $18 for adults, $10 for children 5 to 12. Caverns-only tickets are $14 adults, $9 for kids 5 to 12. The bridge is open daily from 8am to dusk. The attractions are open during summer daily from 8am to sunset; the rest of the year, daily from 8am to 5pm. You can see the bridge itself until dusk.
The bridge is 12 miles south of Lexington on U.S. 11 (take Exit 175 off I-81). For more information, or to book a hotel room or campsite here, contact Natural Bridge, P.O. Box 57, Natural Bridge, VA 24578 (tel. 800/533-1410 or 540/291-2121; fax 540/291-1896; www.naturalbridgeva.com).
On Safari in Virginia
It's a far cry from the real Serengeti Plain, but the Virginia Safari Park, at Exit 180 off I-81 (tel. 540/291-3205; www.virginiasafaripark.com), has zebras, giraffes, antelopes, monkeys, emus, deer, elk, and bison among more than 700 animals roaming the hills between Lexington and Natural Bridge. There's even a petting area with goats, lambs, and pigs. The best way to see the beasts is on a 90-minute wagon ride daily at 11:30am and 3pm during summer, at 1 and 3pm on weekends during spring and autumn. At other times you merely drive your own vehicle through the park. Admission is $14 for adults, $13 for seniors, and $10 for children 3 to 12. The park is open from mid-March to Thanksgiving weekend daily 9am to 5pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.